Kentucky Off-Roading: The Road to Understanding
The banjo theme song to “Deliverance” keeps playing in my head.
That’s because I’m surrounded by a dozen or so hefty men in baseball caps smoking cigarettes talking trash about environmental regulations.
“Those regulations have just about killed Kentucky coal mining,” says one.
“Used to employ 500 men, now almost nobody” says another. “Yep, those regs is killin’ us.”
No one talks about the fact that coal mining has been largely mechanized and now requires far fewer miners to dig out the precious mineral.
I’ve been transported to an alien planet, one I’ve seen only in movies. Evarts is a small community in the southeastern part of the bluegrass state that few outsiders visit. These men, members of the Harlan County Ridge Runners ATV Club, have brought their squat ATVs and four-wheeled side-by-side vehicles here to let us experience Kentucky-style off-roading.
But first, there’s lunch. Under a covered patio with picnic tables, the wives of these men have laid out a spread – big tubs of chicken tenders covered with thick fried coating, fried potato spears, smoky baked beans, and sweet, fine-textured corn bread.
There’s not a vegetable or leafy green in sight. There are plenty of desserts, including mini blueberry muffins, two kinds of sweet coffee cake, and, incongruously, an elegant tray of fresh strawberries dipped in milk chocolate. For drinks, they’ve brought plastic jugs of diet and regular Pepsi, Sprite, and orange soda. There’s no beer because Harlan is a dry county.
As we load up our Styrofoam trays, the wives scurry about pulling out more tubs of food. They smile and encourage us to eat up. We sit down at the two picnic tables with our lunches and only then do the men and their wives serve themselves. They don’t join us, but stand on the edges of the space and eat leaning against the railings.
We’re almost finished with our meal when an older man comes to the end of our table and addresses my two young male companions. “You boys want a little nip?” he asks.
My mind banjo thrums.
Of course, he’s talking moonshine.
“Sure,” says 20-something Brad, grinning at his friend across the table. “We’ll try it.”
Surreptitiously, the old man returns with a Styrofoam cup filled with a couple of inches of clear liquid.
Brad takes a sip and winces. The hooch smells floral, but tastes a bit like cleaning fluid.
“That’s 110 proof,” says the man.
“Smooth,” says Curtis, draining the drink.
Saddle Up the ATVs
When we finish lunch, the men head to their vehicles and start firing them up. Some of us will ride shotgun in the side-by-sides. These look like supped up mini golf carts with mean-looking knobby wheels and 700 horsepower four wheel drive engines that enable them to power up steep and rocky terrain. One of them sports a metal sign that reads, “I’m not a redneck. Just a Southerner with an attitude.”
The ATVs are squat motorcycles with four big tires and wide handlebars. Some have seats that allow passengers to ride on the back. Others are solo bikes.
Brad, Curtis, and I are each given ATVs to ride. The boys are experienced ATVers, but I’ve never ridden one of these off-roaders so Jake, a bear of a man wearing a baseball cap with a frayed bill and a sleeveless chambray shirt, offers to let me ride his yellow pride and joy. He helps me adjust my helmet and then gives me a few pointers.
“These don’t got no clutches,” he says, turning the key and starting the engine. “It’s all the way down for reverse and then five gears up. Here’s the brake and this thumb key’s the throttle.”
I shift and kill the engine, twice. He patiently re-starts the engine. I thumb the throttle and the bike lurches forward. I wonder if Jake is as nervous about his bike as I feel.
I line up behind a side-by-side and Brad’s and Curtis’ bikes. Behind me, a dozen more vehicles rev their engines.
Brad and Curtis roar off in front of me. I have trouble getting my ATV going and herky-jerky start up the hill, trying to figure out the gear shift. Then I get the hang of it and shift from first to second to third gear. I pour on the throttle, closing the gap between the boys and my bike. I watch where Curtis goes, following his path, except when he and Brad purposely gun up a side hill for extra thrills.
Heavy rain the previous four days has made the track slick and has transformed low areas into muddy mini-lakes, a foot or more deep and some as wide as a small truck. I follow Curtis’ route through the watery spots. Not wanting to get my running shoes and jeans muddy, I put my feet up on the fenders when we splash through.
I watch Brad stand up to minimize the jarring and do the same. The bike maneuvers well, but it takes all my strength to wrestle the handlebars over rocks, ruts, and holes in the track. These are old logging and coal mining roads that wend through a former strip mine. The lands have been reclaimed by replanting native grasses, shrubs, and trees and there’s little evidence of the area’s former life as a barren moonscape.
In one place, the road widens and the riders bunch up, riding two, three, or four abreast. A helmet-less guy, tall and skinny with tattoos on his arms, roars past me on the left. He’s a foot or so ahead when suddenly he jerks and falls off his bike into a pool of chocolate brown water.
The group pulls up, ATVs and side-by-side drivers shutting off their engines and firing up cigarettes. The fallen rider has a bloody gash on his forearm. No one has first aid equipment, so he wipes the blood off with his hand.
We’ve been riding for about 30 minutes and, while it’s fun, my arms and legs feel weary. I trade places with Seth whose been riding in a side-by-side at the back of the pack. I give him my helmet and a quick lesson in shifting, throttling, and braking.
I climb into Preston’s vehicle and he offers me a bottle of cold water from the cooler he’s got strapped in the back. I guzzle the water and feel grateful for the break.
The retired 63-year-old has been off-roading for 20 years. He’s a former president of the Harlan County Ridge Runners and he and his wife spend their time cruising the hills around here or traveling the country trying out different places to ride.
“I’m diabetic,” he says over the whine of the engine. “So I used to ride the ATVs a lot, but now I mostly ride this side-by-side. That way if something happens to me, my wife can get me out.”
The rig has two straps with plastic handles, one in front and one that hangs from the ceiling that I use to steady myself as the little vehicle negotiates the rocky terrain. While it’s a bumpy ride, it’s not nearly as physical as driving the ATV. It’s an automatic so Preston just has to gun the engine, brake, and occasionally shift the little car from two-wheel to four-wheel drive.
“We’ve got a clubhouse down there where we have big bonfires and people come from all around,” he says. “We let them park their RVs, trailers, and toyhaulers there; got a shower house and everything. We don’t charge ‘em. We’ll bring them up here too if they want to come.”
We’ve driven to the highest point, a big bowl-like area they call the arena. From here, it’s easy to see how the coal mining company scooped away the top of a mountain and left this giant depression. On the surrounding hills, the off roaders have cut trails that climb straight up and plunge straight down. These are trails for experienced riders like Brad and Curtis.
Curtis Breaks the Wheel
But when we come over the rise, Curtis is standing beside his ATV, his front tire flattened. He flashes us an embarrassed smile. In ATVing, a flat front tire is usually caused by rider error and Curtis has hit a big rock hard enough to bend the tire’s rim. ATV and side-by-side drivers pull up and some of the men haul out tools, a portable air compressor to re-inflate the tire, a hammer to straighten the rim. Preston gets on his radio to let the others know what’s going on.
The guys light up cigarettes. They pound on the rim with the small hammer, but the tool’s head breaks off. Preston radios for a bigger hammer, but no one has one. The men stand around the ATV discussing the problem. After 30 minutes and no success, they decide to send a truck up to haul down the disabled bike. Curtis will double up and ride back on Brad’s bike.
Aside from some good-natured ribbing aimed at Curtis, no seems upset or angry. We pile back into the rigs and head down the hill.
On the way back, Preston lights a cigarette, driving his side-by-side with one hand. He tells me his doctor says he needs a triple bypass, but he’s going in for a second opinion. “If the next doctor says the same thing,” he tells me, dragging on the butt, “I’m quitting these things.”
I tell him about how acupuncture helped me quit smoking years ago. “It takes away the craving,” I say.
He looks at me quizzically. “No, kiddin’? It really works, huh? I’m gonna try it out.”
As we round a corner, we pass a low-lying concrete bunker. “That’s where I’d go into the mine when I worked here,” Preston says. He worked in the mine for six years before getting a job with Bell South. “I had to crawl in and I’d eat my lunch lying on my side.”
I ask him about black lung, the respiratory disease common among coal miners. He says, so far anyway, his lungs are good, despite his cigarette habit. But he knows lots of men who aren’t so lucky. “It’s tough work,” he says.
Back at the camp, we dismount and follow Preston and the other men over to their clubhouse. They offer showers, but we just wash our hands and faces and use drops to wash the grit from our eyes.
Before we leave, the men insist we come inside a trailer that’s stocked with Harlan County Ridge Runner t-shirts in a rainbow of colors. I choose a robin’s egg blue one and shake Preston’s hand. “You’re a Harlan County Ridge Runner now,” he says proudly.
As we pull out of the driveway, the guys are waving; we’re waving. I lean out the window and shout, “Don’t forget, Preston, about that acupuncture.”
He smiles broadly. “No, I won’t. Thanks.”
Funny, I don’t hear that banjo music anymore.
But maybe, just maybe, I see a new friend. – by Bobbie Hasselbring